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Farmer union rep vows Indian people will resist FTAs

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by, 29 April 2022

Vijoo Krishnan is the joint secretary of All India Kisan Sabha (or All India Peasants Union), which is the oldest peasant organisation in India. The pan-Indian union was established in 1936 and has more than 20 million members. sat down with Krishnan (virtually) following two days of nationwide strikes in India at the end of March 2022. The mass action saw all labour and farmers’ unions come together to protest against a new labour code pushed by the Modi government which would snatch away hard-won social rights. Their demands included remunerative prices for farmers’ crops, social security measures for people who have lost income during the Covid-19 pandemic, and ensuring food security.

Agriculture in India is dominated by small holder peasantry, but the peasants’ situation is quite grim. A lot of them don’t own any land and are tenant cultivators. For the past 30 years, neoliberal policies enacted by different governments, including the signing of several free trade agreements, have led to a massive agrarian crisis, driving 400,000 farmers to commit suicide. Farmers make a meager 27 rupees a day (about US$35 cents) and their incomes have been shrinking by the day. A couple of years ago, India pulled out of the RCEP (Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership), a mega regional trade deal encompassing 15 countries in Asia-Pacific. What role did farmers play in the Indian government’s decision?

Vijoo Krishnan: I would like to go a little further into this issue, back to 1998 when India went into a free trade agreement with Sri Lanka. Our experience has been that it led to the inflow of different crops to India, like spices, tea, coconut and such products. Cheaper products coming from Sri Lanka led to a price crash and, in the state of Kerala, in the south of India, farmers faced a huge crisis, ultimately driving some of them to suicide. Still, the government went ahead with the South Asian free trade agreement, as well as the India-ASEAN free trade agreement. Dumping of cheap products ensued, especially rubber, palm oil, coffee, tea, pepper and other spices, which literally destroyed farmers.

It is in such circumstances that the RCEP negotiations were going on, as well as a host of such free trade agreements being negotiated simultaneously, such as the India-European Union FTA. Each one of these was without any transparency and there was no discussion with state governments about the need for such agreements. We also noted that they would not only affect agricultural producers cultivating commercial crops like spices, coffee or tea, but the dairy farms in India as well. Milk production has actually helped farmers to overcome the crisis to a certain extent. Millions of farmers, many of whom are women, are in dairy farming, and that section is going to be affected when you have milk and milk products coming in from abroad in large numbers. So that was one reason why organisations like ours coordinated with many other organisations to oppose the RCEP. The government initially was unwilling to accept the issues raised by farmers, but with some electoral defeats and setbacks just before the RCEP was to be finalised, the prime minister had to say that India would not sign the agreement.

Since India pulled out of the RCEP, the government has renewed its interest in bilateral free trade agreements. There’s the Australia FTA, negotiations with Canada and the UK, the signing of the UAE FTA, relaunching of the EU FTA. So it seems that the voice of the farmers hasn’t been heard beyond the RCEP protests. What do farmers have to lose with all these bilateral negotiations?

During the RCEP issue, the prime minister also said the other free trade agreements including the India-ASEAN FTA would be also reviewed. Organisations from the left, like ours, had been in the forefront of protests against the India-ASEAN FTA in the state of Kerala, which is the most affected by the agreement. For instance, there was a human chain from one end of the state to the other – that’s an almost 600 km long human chain with millions of people. Today, many years after the implementation of the agreement, even the organisations and political parties which were in favour of it have realised how it has had an adverse impact on farmers in our country. Indian farmers are directly tied to the volatility of the world market prices and there is absolutely no effort towards price stabilisation so that the farmers can at least earn a little more than the cost of production. We have been mobilising these farmers. Crop-based organisations also are coming in. We have been building a broader unity against free trade agreements which are leading to adverse impact on the farmers of Africa as well.

Now, if you take the case of Australia or New Zealand, which have over production in milk and milk products, the dumping of these into India is going to lead to a big crisis for dairy farmers. So yes, the government is still working within the neoliberal paradigm.

Do you know if agriculture is included in the negotiations towards the India-Australia interim free trade deal that has been announced? [The interview was conducted a few days before the agreement was concluded, ed.]

There’s a total lack of transparency. We don’t know what is on the negotiating table. Even the parliament is not informed of what is being discussed. Vegetables, lentils, nuts and dairy are important sectors, although it is said that sensitive issues - such as milk, wheat and beef - are set aside, for now. That is the information that we are getting from the media. If you look at the discussions going on in Australia, they are talking about getting India into an “early harvest” first, then into a comprehensive agreement, and nudging India back into the RCEP as well.

Another factor which I would like to emphasise is that it is never an equal playing field. Indian farmers receive far less subsidies than farmers in Australia, New Zealand, Japan, the EU, the US and so on. Poor farmers of India are put in so-called competition with these big agricultural players from the developed world.

You mentioned there will be opposition against the spread of free trade deals. Are there any concrete actions scheduled in the next few weeks?

We just had this prolonged struggle and it was a success but at great human costs. More than 750 farmers were killed in the course of this movement. We had a preliminary meeting a few days back with the farmers’ organisations and in the coming days, we will take decision as to how to go about building resistance to this. But surely, it is going to be resisted in our country. It is not going to go unchallenged. The government is pushing through some of these free trade agreements without any democratic discussion at all and that will be resisted on the ground by the people of our country.

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